Marriage is a complicated thing; add to it the tumult of history and you have material so potentially rich as to cry out for the kind of rigor, formal beauty, and close, penetrating attention it receives in Protektor, from the Czech Republic and Germany. Beautifully written by Robert Geisler, Benjamin Tuček and Marek Najbrt, and directed for the ages by Najbrt, it is a devastating film, at least as wonderful as the Hungarian Bizalom (Confidence, 1980) by István Szabó on the subject of foreign occupation, whose dreadful atmosphere it, too, evokes brilliantly. Najbrt’s film is essential.
The title is cunningly ironic. The film opens on a Prague street in 1942, with a man, journalist Emil Vrbata, bicycling home furiously; it is the day that the Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, has been assassinated. The film flashes back to the late 1930s, showing us Emil and his wife (Marek Daniel and Jana Plodková, both superb), popular movie star Hana Vrbatová, whose greater success tries her husband’s professional self-esteem; he becomes her “protector” for real, however, when to spare her reprisals, and to court success for himself, he joins a radio station and propagandizes on-air for the Third Reich. Hana, you see, is Jewish. Emil’s compromises to protect the love of his life generate horrible results. Now he is ordered to divorce and denounce his wife. Proceeding ahead in time, even beyond the (now comprehensible) 1942 starting-point, the loop-around structure, suggesting a noose, pulls tight. Drawing on the closing shot of Pabst’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1931), Protektor ends with a hauntingly out-of-focus evocation of the Holocaust.
Indeed, one of the film’s many ironies is that, although in color (the murky cinematography is a liability), it marshals silent-film techniques of German Expressionism—at first, intriguingly; ultimately, piercingly.
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